Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1710
De Beauvoir’s importance and interest derive from several sources. Because she was a feminist, her life serves as a model of how to avoid the pitfalls described so well in Le Deuxieme Sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953). As a prizewinning novelist, she reveals the evolution of a writer and the way life is transformed into art. Even though Sartre published a brief autobiography, Les Mots (1963; The Words, 1964), and some of his diaries have appeared posthumously, de Beauvoir’s account of her relationship with a leading proponent of existentialism must concern anyone seeking to understand contemporary French philosophy. Finally, even in her attempt to remove herself from the historical currents of her age, she represents the French intellectuals of the Left during the 1930’s; thus her life becomes a microcosm of the world in which she moved. Though these different strands are interwoven to create the pattern of her narrative, one may examine them individually to gain a clearer understanding of the woman and her book.
At the end of the first section of The Prime of Life, de Beauvoir concedes that “when certain critics read this autobiography they will point out, triumphantly, that it flatly contradicts my thesis in The Second Sex.” More precisely, The Prime of Life shows how a woman may escape the curse of dependence that de Beauvoir believes blights the lives of the vast majority of women. Early in the book she makes two important decisions. Sartre has been offered a post in Le Havre, she a job in Marseille, hundreds of miles from her beloved Paris. She thus faces separation from the person and place that mean the most to her. Sartre proposes that they marry so that they can remain together at a school close to the capital. Acknowledging her opposition to matrimony, Sartre nevertheless argues that it is “stupid to martyr oneself for a principle.”
She instantly rejects his solution, both for herself and for Sartre. Marriage would increase her responsibilities, and Sartre would have to surrender even more freedom than she. They have agreed to a relationship that binds neither; marriage would destroy that existence. She observes that had she wanted children, she would have decided differently, but children, like marriage, would interfere “with the way of life upon which I was embarking.” In Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter she is shocked when a friend declares that being a mother is just as important as being a writer. Having found her vocation, which she likens to a religious calling, she refuses to surrender to society’s expectations. In refusing to marry she is not martyring herself to principle but rather avoiding martyrdom.
Yet rejecting marriage does not in itself guarantee her independence. Her victory is not complete until she decides to accept the post in Marseille. Standing on the stairs of the railway station of that city, cut off from all familiar faces and surroundings, she feels exhilarated rather than depressed, for now she is truly on her own. Alone in a new region, she uses her freedom to explore the countryside, refusing to allow her gender to restrict her movement. She demonstrates great physical strength as she climbs mountains (in Greece, Sartre was unable to keep up with her pace), rejecting warnings that such solitary ramblings were unsafe. As she writes, “I had no intention of making my life a bore with precautions of this sort.”
Her autobiography is thus not a contradiction of The Second Sex but an alternative to it. The Prime of Life shows that the price of personal freedom is eternal vigilance, that only through the assertion of will and intelligence can a woman escape dependence—but she can do it.
The rigorous hikes across the French countryside are important to de Beauvoir as a writer as well as a woman. When she was a child she wanted to visit every place in the world, and that desire for travel never left her. She is constantly going places or planning a trip somewhere, for she wants to miss nothing. That same impulse takes her to films, plays, and nightclubs. Andre Gide once commented that the essence of Spain can be found in its hot chocolate, so she forces herself to drink cups “of a black, saucelike liquid, heavily flavored with cinnamon.” Travel books say that slums reveal a town’s true quality, so she visits them nightly even though she finds them uninteresting. She wants to take a grueling fourteen-hour train trip to see the Meteora monasteries in Greece; when Sartre, who has heretofore acceded to her proposed expeditions, balks, she cries in “pure rage” and tells herself that she is missing “all manner of marvels.”
In listing the writers that influenced her, de Beauvoir observes that Dashiell Hammett and Fyodor Dostoevski provide models for dialogue, and William Faulkner and Franz Kafka fascinate her because of their psychological probing. She also admires Ernest Hemingway’s use of the vernacular and his description of setting through the eyes of his characters. Her list of readings includes Henry James, too, and her autobiography seems to be a mise-en-scene of his injunction to the would-be author to be one on whom nothing is lost. Seeing her literary—and hence her life’s—mission to save the world from oblivion, she constantly strives to acquaint herself more fully with that world.
Convinced as she is that she is destined to convert experience into literature, for many years she is unable to grasp what she calls “the crux of the art of letters.” Her first two attempts at writing a novel end in failure because she remains detached from her work. At length, Sartre exclaims, “Why don’t you put yourself into your writing? You’re more interesting than all those Renees and Lisas,” characters she had used in her work to express her views but for whom she had little or no sympathy. The notion of drawing on her own personality frightens her, but she realizes that Sartre is correct. L’Invitee (1943; She Came to Stay, 1949) thinly veils her relationship with Sartre and Olga D., a philosophy student who fascinated Sartre for a time. Le Sang des autres (1945; The Blood of Others, 1948) is based on her wartime experiences, and Les Mandarins (1954; The Mandarins, 1956), which won the Prix Goncourt in 1954, draws from her postwar life.
In this matter, as in others, Sartre showed himself to be the ideal companion. He not only helped de Beauvoir find her true subject matter for fiction, he also recognized and fostered her desire for independence. He was mentor and inspiration. His play Les Mouches (1943; The Flies, 1946) prompted her to write the two-act Les Bouches inutiles (1945; useless mouths). She read Sartre’s L’Etre et le neant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956) several times before it was published; her own Pyrrhus et Cineas (1944; Pyrrhus and Cineas) builds on the views he expressed there.
As with every other aspect of their relationship, their intellectual debt was mutual. Her knowledge of art was more sophisticated than his; at the Prado in Madrid she taught him to regard style and technique, while he reminded her not to disregard the content. Having taken her degree in philosophy at the Sorbonne, she could discuss and exchange the latest theories in the field and so help Sartre sort out his own views.
Through de Beauvoir’s record of these conversations, one sees the development of Sartre’s metaphysics, his belief in “the autonomy of the irrational mind” and his discovery of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological philosophy. She shows how Sartre’s fiction also developed. Thus, she introduces Jacques Bost, one of Sartre’s students and the model for Boris in L’Age de raison (1945; The Age of Reason, 1947). Chez Alexandre, a cafe which Sartre and de Beauvoir frequented in Rouen, became Chez Camille in La Nausee (1938; Nausea, 1949). Lobsters and crabs appear in that novel and in Les Sequestres d’Altona (1959; The Condemned of Altona, 1960). The Prime of Life explains their origin: Sartre once took mescaline, and for months afterward he imagined that giant crustacea were pursuing him. Yet another revelation concerns the effect on Sartre of being a prisoner of war. After his repatriation, he became much more doctrinaire and committed to a life of action.
De Beauvoir admits that she was unprepared for this change in Sartre; for a decade both had believed that the individual must stand alone to preserve his or her freedom. Hence they had refused to join any party or act to aid causes they supported. When the Spanish Civil War began, they favored the Republicans and assumed that that side would win. They could admire the commitment of Andre Malraux and others who went off to fight, but they could not imitate such action. Like Leon Blum, the French leftist premier, and the radical Socialists, they chose a course of nonintervention. The conclusion of the Munich Pact filled them with relief; de Beauvoir was convinced that the democracies had acted properly to secure peace.
The German invasion of Poland forced de Beauvoir, as it did many others on the Left, to rethink her political views. In 1939, many shared the sentiment expressed by the wife of an author at Gallimard: “What difference does the war make? It does not change my attitude to a blade of grass.” De Beauvoir’s own naivete is exemplified by her response in the mid-1930’s to the question, “What is a Jew?” She had replied that only individuals exist, that one need not concern oneself with any identity that linked one to a group. As she describes her attitude before the war, “I had followed my own bent, learning about the world and constructing a private pattern of happiness. Morality became identified in my mind with pursuits such as these.”
The Nazi occupation taught her how wrong she had been. No longer could she cling to innocent optimism; yet she refused to surrender to despair. Where she had previously hoped to find happiness and freedom through isolation, she now chose a different path: “To act in concert with all men, to struggle, to accept death if need be; that life might keep its meaning—by holding fast to these precepts, I felt, I would master that darkness whence the cry of human lamentation arose.”
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